With 1,000 days to go until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, thoughts are turning to how the games can become a positive vehicle for change in a culture often averse to it.
Japan is a country with a wealth of accessibility-conscious infrastructure, with the great majority of train and metro stations easily navigable for wheelchair users and people with other disabilities. But culturally, there is a lot of work to be done, and some believe the Paralympics may prove a catalyst.
Hard infrastructure in Japan is “carefully considered” compared with foreign countries and the availability of elevators is “very high,” said Toshiya Kakiuchi, 28, a wheelchair user who is an adviser to the Paralympic Support Center and president of Mirairo Inc., a company that specializes in creating universal designs in products and services.
“But Japanese people tend to be either excessively concerned or indifferent to people with disabilities and that is not appropriate,” he explained, saying he knows it from personal experience.
“There is a strong influence from our educational system,” He said. “For instance, because I, a wheelchair user, went to regular public elementary and middle schools and graduated, I was in the newspaper.”
Any child graduating should have a sense of achievement, but Kakiuchi believes his progression through school was hardly headline material.
“This kind of atmosphere creates a feeling that people with disabilities have insurmountable difficulties and society must protect them as being special,” a situation that he believes needs to change, especially in the workforce.
Kakiuchi said he hopes that Tokyo’s hosting of the Paralympics will lead to a more diverse employee environment.
“Of the 8.6 million people in Japan with disabilities, it is said that half of them, or 4.3 million, are able to work. But in reality, only 460,000, or around 10 percent, are employed,” Kakiuchi said.
Perhaps the first sign of a Paralympic-driven cultural shift has emerged at public broadcaster NHK.
The company announced in late October that Erina Chiba, 22, and Yuki Goto, 21, will work as the broadcaster’s first disabled presenters and reporters.
They are expected to appear on Paralympics-related programs and report on young athletes training for the 2020 event.
Chiba, who has cerebral palsy and has played para-sports such as wheelchair curling and wheelchair soccer, said, “I want viewers to understand the importance of taking on challenges, whether they have an impairment or not.”
Yasushi Yamawaki, president of the Japanese Paralympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee vice president, says NHK’s recruitment of Chiba is “unprecedented in Japan.”
“It will allow producers to have her involved in program-making and help project the voice of people with an impairment,” he said. “If this becomes common practice in the Paralympic Games, people across Japan will see such reporters on TV, it will become a more common sight and we think that it will have a positive impact on businesses and communities as well.”
“The Paralympic Games have the potential to trigger a positive change in people’s perceptions of those with an impairment, and ultimately to realize an inclusive society where everyone respects each other regardless of ability. In such a society, I believe there will be a greater participation of people with an impairment in the workforce,” said Yamawaki.
Highly-visible changes like the hiring of Chiba and Goto are reinforced by Tokyo 2020 organizers putting on public events that feature people with disabilities as their stars.
Recently, Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya shopping district saw athletes with lower-limb prostheses competing in a 60-meter sprint on a public road closed for the event.
Three world-class Paralympic athletes — Jarryd Wallace, Richard Browne and Felix Streng — took part.
Browne, who is an American, won the race. He said the crowd’s cheers gave him the motivation to win
Professional athlete Atsushi Yamamoto, a leg amputee himself who works to promote Paralympic sports, said, “Full recognition of the existence of the Paralympics may be 100 percent in Japan but almost no one knows an athlete’s name.”
Yamamoto said Japan needs “star athletes” like those that are well-established in the Olympic world. “I want people to find their favorite para-athlete. But to do that, a medal is a necessity.”
To help with achieving wider recognition, three famous celebrities have been recruited to help promote the Paralympics that run from Aug. 25 to Sept. 6, 2020.
Earlier this month, the Nippon Foundation’s Paralympic Support Center announced that Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori, former members of the now disbanded Japanese idol group SMAP, will engage in various activities as special ambassadors for the games.
“I hope their participation will lead to more people becoming interested in Paralympic sports” by attending the events in person, a spokesman at the Nippon Foundation said.
But for Kakiuchi all the glamor and glitz is secondary. He simply wants the Paralympic glow to reach those that need it the most.
“A spotlight should be cast not only on athletes but also on people who cannot go outside their homes because of disabilities,” he stressed.